Love Casts Out Doubt

Sunday, May 5 (O.S., April 22), 2019: Antipascha; Sunday of St. Thomas; St. Theodore the Sykeote, Bishop of Anastasiopolis (613).; Apostles Nathaniel, Luke, and Clement. Martyrs Leonidas of Alexandria (202); St. Vitalis of the monastery of Abba Serid at Gaza (609-620).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

One of the best signs of the truthfulness of the Gospels is the willingness of the sacred authors to recount the moral failures of not just the apostles but all the disciples.

Peter denies Jesus and Judas betrays Him.

When the myrrh-bearing hear from the angel that Jesus is risen and are told to “tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you” (Mark 16:7, NJKV), they instead run away in fear, saying “nothing to anyone” (v. 8).

Likewise in today’s Gospel, we see Peter and the disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” We need at this point to pause for a moment and consider more of the context–the timeline really–of what is happening.

Jesus appears to the disciples on Pascha, “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” Earlier that day, He had appeared “to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). At first, she doesn’t recognize Jesus mistaking Him for the gardener. But when He says her name–”Mary!”–she immediately recognizes Him and hurries off to tell the disciples that the Lord is risen (see John 20:15-18).

Unfortunately, and this brings us to today’s Gospel, “they did not believe” Mary (Mark 16:11), her words “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Betrayers. Doubters, Cowards, Women. In the ancient world, none of these would have been considered credible witnesses because none could be honorable men. And yet, these are the witnesses that the Church offers us. Far from undermining the credibility of the Gospel, the weakness of the disciples highlights its power.

Turning now to the reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostle, and even though “many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles,” even though “the people held them in high honor” they were afraid to publicly follow the disciples. Like the disciples on Pascha, the people were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

Nevertheless, “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The reason is because the disciples were eventually able to move beyond the crippling fear and they experienced on Pascha and so counteract the fear felt among the citizens of Jerusalem.

St John Chrysostom explains it this way (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 12): “Earth was becoming like heaven,” because of how the first Christians lived. It was their “boldness of speech,” the “wonders” they performed that cause the residence of Jerusalem to look on the followers of Jesus as they were angels.”

As for the disciples themselves, “They were unconcerned about ridicule, threats, perils.” Instead, “They were compassionate and beneficent. Some of them they helped with money, and some with words, and some with healing of their bodies and of their souls; they accomplished every kind of healing.”

How did the grace of God bring about this transformation in the disciples? How did fearful doubters become bold apostles?

Love.

Of all those first entrusted with the proclamation of the Gospel, only one responded with obedience. It was only Mary Magdalene who did as she was told to do.

The reason, as St Mark highlights for us, is because of all the disciples of Jesus, only she knew evil and the power of the devil not simply as an external threat but an inner struggle. It was out of her that Jesus “had cast seven demons.” As Jesus tells us in another place, those “love much” who have been “forgiven much.” As for the one “to whom little is forgiven,” that is who repents only of minor sins leaving unmourned the more serious ones, “the same loves little.” (see Luke 7:47).

It was in her great love for Jesus that Mary found the courage to proclaim boldly the Gospel. This is important because, contrary to what we sometimes imagine, doubt is not a sin of the intellect but the will.

I doubt because I don’t love and I don’t love because I am afraid. I don’t trust God because I have not united myself to Him; I resist His will for my life, preferring my will to His. In its most extreme form, I prefer to fail of my terms to succeed on His.

But “perfect love drives out fear” and the “one who fears is not made perfect in love” (see 1 John 4:18). The apostles doubt, I doubt, because their love, my love, remains imperfect.

St John tells us that anyone who hates his neighbor is “a murder” (1 John 3:15) and that anyone who says he loves God but who hates his neighbor “is a liar: (1 John 4:20) and lives “in darkness” (1 John 2:11).

Jesus tells us what it means to love God perfectly when He says we are to love God with all that is in us and that we are to love our neighbor as our very self (see Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).

The love of God is not an idea; much less is it a feeling. Rather, to love God is to unite our will to His. If I love God I will keep His commandments (see John 14:15). Love, in other words, is a matter of obedience.

And just as to love God is to be obedient to God, to love my neighbor means to want what God wants for him. I love you with a perfect love if I want for you all that God would give you.

To be sure, the will of God for me and for you is wider, deeper and broader than what we know. Nevertheless, we know what God doesn’t want. The Ten Commandments offer us a negative expression of God’s will for humanity.

And we know from the Scriptures and the fathers that God’s will for us is–in a positive sense–rooted in our participation in his very nature (2 Peter 1:4).

We come to share in the divine life through our participation in the sacraments of the Church. To share in God’s life means we must be baptized, confess our sins, receive Holy Communion. To these, we add daily prayer and the reading of Scripture and the keeping of the fasts as we are able.

Is there more to perfect love? Yes! But if we do at least these things, God will slowly reveal the fullness of His will for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The fearful, doubting disciples of Pascha we meet today will soon become bold witnesses for Christ through love! In these next few weeks, as we make the journey from Pascha to Pentecost, we are preparing ourselves for a new outpouring of divine love into our hearts. We have this period of rest, in anticipation of the renewal of our witness to the world.

So get ready! There is more to come!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love Sustains and Strengths Faith in Christ

Sunday, April 15 (O.S., April 2), 2018: Antipascha; Second Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of St. Thomas; Ven. Titus the Wonderworker (9th c.). Martyrs Amphianus and Edesius of Lycia (306). Martyr Polycarp of Alexandria (4th c.).

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

From the beginning, doubt has traveled alongside the proclamation of the Gospel. Take the response of the disciples in the final moments before Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

We read in today’s Matin’s Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) that when the disciples saw, for what would be the last time, their once-dead Friend now clearly very much alive again “they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (v. 17). Even though they had spent 40 days with the Risen Lord Jesus and even though they worshipped Him as “Lord and God” (see John 20:28), some still struggled with doubt.

While the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead is often met with great joy by those closest to Him, some will respond with disbelief.

Look at Mary Magdalene out of whom Jesus “had cast seven demons.” Though initially overcome with amazement and fear on that first Pascha morning, she quickly gets control of herself and goes to the other disciples “as they mourned and wept” and tells them that Jesus is alive. But, as St Mark says the apostles “did not believe” her (Mark 16:9-11). Or, as St Luke bluntly states, the Good News of the Resurrection seems to St Peter and the other apostles seems “an idle tale.” Mary and the other women are simply not believed (Luke 24:11).

Seen in the light of these events today’s Gospel is neither a surprise nor a scandal. We shouldn’t imagine that the apostles and disciples had an easier time of believing because they were witnesses to the Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was not simply a new thing, it was unheard of. Yes, the disciples eventually became witnesses–even to the point of death–but for all of them, faith in the resurrection only came over time. Even when standing before the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, faith can be a struggle.

In the tradition of the Church, doubt isn’t fundamentally a matter of intellectual uncertainty. If it were, then proclaiming the Gospel would be simply a matter of presenting solid evidence in a logically and compelling fashion.

We think of doubt as intellectual uncertainty because we have confused the Church with the school room or the law court. This though makes faith in Jesus Christ not a gift of divine grace to be received with a humble and thankful heart but the work of human reason; not the work of God but of the skilled debaters of this age (see 1 Corinthians 1:20).

To say that faith is not the work of human reason doesn’t make faith in Jesus Christ unreasonable. Look at St Thomas in today’s Gospel. When his fellow disciples tell him “We have seen the Lord,” he demands a very particular kind of proof. He will not believe, he says “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side.”

Thomas demands not biblical citations or philosophical arguments but empirical validation. He will only believe when the evidence of his senses confirms the Resurrection. In this, the Apostle Thomas is one of the first Christian scientists.

It’s worth noting that when Jesus again appears to the disciples–this time with Thomas among them–He doesn’t dismiss Thomas’s call for empirical evidence. Instead, Jesus freely offers it. This is why the icon for today’s feast is called in Greek, “The Touching of Thomas” and in The Slavonic “The Belief of Thomas.”

Thomas asks for and receives from Jesus the evidence he needs to believe.

The first lesson here for us is clear. Contrary to what we often hear, science and the Gospel are not opposed. Far from being the enemy of faith, science can support the Gospel and even lead us to faith. Yes, as St Thomas and the other disciples find out, the glory of the Resurrection transcends what empirical science can know; Jesus walks through locked doors; St Peter’s shadow, as we read in Acts, restores the sick to health.

To say that science supports and can even lead to faith in Jesus Christ is very different from saying that faith is dependent on human reason. While Jesus is willing to provide the evidence Thomas needs, our Lord immediately follows this with a caution: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The Apostle Thomas asks for a particular kind of evidence–in this case empirical–because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his fellow apostles. In fairness, as we’ve seen and will see again next week, Thomas is not unique in this. Again, on that first Pascha morning, the apostles doubted the Myrrhbearing Women even as the women doubted the testimony of the angel.

Why didn’t Thomas trust his fellow apostles?

The answer is easy enough. He didn’t believe them because he knew them! St Peter denied Jesus three times. Except for John, all the apostles abandoned Jesus.

But even John’s witness was lacking. In the days leading up to Holy Week, he and his brother James try to promote themselves over the other disciples asking Jesus to allow them to sit at His right and left hands when He comes in glory (see Mark 10:35-37).

The very presence of the apostles in the upper room reflects their lack of faith. They were there, behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19).

So what does this all mean for us as Orthodox Christians as we gather together to pray in a small room on the campus of a sometimes aggressively secular university campus?

First, we must keep in mind that human reason and science are not the enemies of the Christian faith. This is so even when, as often happens, they are misused. As St Paul reminds us whatever is true, just as whatever is noble, … just, … pure, … lovely, … of good report,” virtuous or “praiseworthy” all these can and often do strengthen us in our faith even as they can lead those outside the Church to faith in Jesus Christ (see Philippians 4:8).

Second, I must attend to the moral integrity of my witness. By my actions, I can be a bridge to Christ or a wall that obscures Him. Am I a credible witness to divine love, mercy, and forgiveness or do my actions bear witness to some other god, a god of my own creation?

Third and for now last, what of the quality of our life as a community? Tertullian in his defense of the Gospel writes “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead” the pagans to recognize Christians as followers of Jesus. “See how they love one another,” he says the pagans say. For while the pagans “are animated by mutual hatred” Christians are “are ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our love for each other and for those outside the walls of the church this morning that leads others to faith in Jesus Christ. This mutual love also sustains and strengths our faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory